One reason many of us struggle to forgive, particularly in Christian circles, is that we avoid conflicts rather than facing them. In the process of forgiving we have to admit that a conflict exists. The psychological literature is clear that the first step in forgiving is this admission that a conflict has occurred and that there’s real hurt involved. We need to speak honestly about conflicts and acknowledge our reactions: anger, bitterness, hurt, along with a desire to get over these troubling feelings. This can be a slow and repetitious path. To say the obvious: forgiveness takes time. If rushed, the reoccurrence of negative emotion is guaranteed.
The next step in forgiving is an intentional effort to empathize with the offender. This is hard. When we are deeply hurt we easily think our offender is defined by this awful behavior towards us. Bryan Stevenson* points out a deeper truth: none of us is as bad as our worst actions. The truth is that we are all complex creatures who defy labels. This heroic step of adding empathy to our internal dialogue about the offender is an attempt to see from the other person’s perspective, but even more it is an attempt to summon concern for the offender as a child of God. We are not at this step, trying to convince ourselves or anyone else that the offender is right or justified. We are including in our narrative of the conflict that s/he is loved and valued by God. Again the path is steep and the going slow, but progress is possible and significant for our well being and that of others around us.
*Bryan Stevenson (2015). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Random House.